Copyright © 2015 by Christie Adams
“Don’t you understand? I’m broken! No one can fix me! You. Can’t. Fix. Me. Now leave me alone! LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Those words had haunted Ryan Quinn every night for three years, just as the woman who’d spoken them had dominated both his dreams and his waking thoughts. And now, seeing her again, they twisted through his heart with even greater ferocity. He wouldn’t have believed it possible, but she was even more beautiful than he remembered.
Bloody weddings. He never usually attended the damn things. Too much emotion anyway, and this one in particular…Stupid. Her little sister Natalie was the bride, so who else was going to be chief bridesmaid? Too bad for him that the groom was one of his best friends – it wouldn’t have been the done thing to stay away from the most important event in the life of one of his team, the men with whom he’d been to hell and back several times over.
It was just sheer dumb luck that had saved him from being persuaded to take on the duties of the best man. He’d been out of the country when Joel was recruiting for the role; with no guarantee that he’d be back in time for the ceremony, Ryan had ruled himself out of the running, otherwise he was certain he’d have been the one forced into making small talk with the bride’s right-hand woman. And after the way they’d parted company, the talk would have been anything but small. If luck had been on his side, it would have been non-existent – if not, it could have been full-scale Armageddon.
She was laughing and smiling – something she hadn’t done enough of in the year they’d spent together. Now that was intriguing – he looked at her more closely, and found himself surprised to realise that the emptiness that had broken his heart had gone from her eyes.
He flexed his shoulder, felt the nag of the almost-healed injury. Either he was getting slower or the bullets were getting faster. No matter what the movies might portray, making a living as a Special Advisor to Her Majesty’s Government was singularly lacking in glamour, and the excitement was of a kind Ryan would gladly forego. He was getting older and he knew it – perhaps it was time to start leaving the field assignments for the younger guys, and concentrate on dealing with the suits in Whitehall.
Bloody wonderful. Save me the pipe and slippers, just fucking shoot me now.
Ryan took another sip of whiskey, savouring the smooth, spicy flavour. Apart from that fiery spark of eye contact in the church, he’d so far managed to steer well clear of the love of his life. His sensible head, the one on his shoulders, maintained that it was safest to keep it that way.
The head with which he tended to do his thinking around Fiona was inclined to disagree. He shifted on the barstool, trying to ease the growing discomfort at the top of his thighs. He closed his eyes, replaying that moment in the church when they’d made that wildfire connection. During the ceremony, with her concentration on the bride and groom, she’d obviously never noticed him among the plethora of dark suits in the pews on the groom’s side, so when she’d caught sight of him as the wedding party returned down the aisle, the shock had been all too evident in her expression. She was a shock to him, too, and he’d known she’d be there.
Why the hell was he putting himself through this torture? It wasn’t as if the bride and groom were oblivious to the history he shared with Fiona – he could have talked them out of requiring his attendance at the wedding…eventually.
Sad bastard that he was, he knew damn straight why he was subjecting himself to this ordeal. The truth of it was, he’d really wanted to see her again, to find out if she’d moved on from their relationship, found someone she could love enough to lower her defences the way she hadn’t with him. He hadn’t moved on because he couldn’t move on…because he’d loved her from the moment he’d looked up and seen her in the pub, and he’d go to his grave loving her.
So he’d waited for this day, told himself that he wouldn’t care if she turned up with a significant other, and had spent the last couple of hours trying to work out, from her movements round the guests, if such a beast existed.
Back when Joel made his decision, Fiona Pearce had sighed in silent relief when she’d found out that he wasn’t going to be the best man at her sister’s wedding. It had proved to be too much to hope for, that he wouldn’t be there at all.
She stole another glance in his direction. He looked older, and not just by the three years since she’d last seen him – since they’d parted company with her screaming at him to leave her alone. In spite of that, though, he was still the most attractive, charismatic man she’d ever met, and just looking at him was enough to get her heart racing again. He was a potent reminder to her femininity that she hadn’t let another man near her since their split.
Commander Ryan Quinn, Royal Navy. The image of him in uniform popped into her mind, from the one time she’d gone to meet his ship – he’d looked so handsome and he’d been so happy to see her there, but his reaction on clapping eyes on her in the church had been vastly different. As she’d followed the happy couple back down the aisle, her gaze had meshed with his for a nanosecond, and what had been blatantly obvious was the sudden flare of strong emotion at seeing her again after all this time. It didn’t take a genius to work out that there was nothing good about that emotion. There couldn’t be.
After the unexpected encounter, Fiona had managed to regain her composure by the time the wedding party emerged from the church. She’d concentrated on following the photographer’s instructions, there and in the grounds at the hotel, and through it all, she’d also managed to avoid being anywhere in the vicinity of Ryan Quinn.
It was while the photographer had been fussing with his light meter outside the church that she’d bitten the bullet and asked her sister about Ryan, only to be told that he’d come to the wedding without a plus-one. Fiona still didn’t know why, in the days immediately before the wedding, neither Nat nor Joel had seen fit to warn her that Ryan was expected to attend after all.
During the wedding breakfast, she’d been part of the top table, of course, while Ryan had been some distance away, on a table that included members of his SBS team and their partners. The fact that he was alone was none of her business, a minor detail that didn’t concern her. He’d probably been with a dozen women since her, and the lack of a companion was just a timing issue. His next girlfriend could even be one of the many single female friends Nat had invited to join them at the evening reception.
Yet Fiona could do nothing to prevent her gaze drifting towards him, drawn by the qualities that, for her, made him unique among men. It wasn’t his stunning looks – they were just the icing on the cake – but the power and determination that rolled off him in waves, even when he was doing nothing more than sitting there, observing what was going on around him. He’d always had an authority about him, that aura of command that stated he was in control, and woe betide anyone who challenged that.
Of course, his physical presence didn’t hurt, either. So much leashed strength in those broad shoulders. And much though she wanted to dismiss it, she couldn’t forget her own reaction in the church, when she saw the way those shoulders filled the formal suit, just the way she remembered they filled his uniform. Her body’s response made her steps falter for a second, but the best man’s hand at her elbow steadied her enough to return her focus to the matter at hand.
After the formality of the meal, she’d mingled with the guests, with the family and friends who had come to see Nat marry Joel Barlow, a former member of Ryan’s team. She’d done her share of chatting and smiling, and now she just wanted a few minutes to herself. The empty table to one side of the hotel ballroom, where the wedding reception was taking place, was ideal for a few moments’ quiet contemplation before the evening became even more frantic.
Her mind a million miles and a million lifetimes away, Fiona was staring blindly at a spot on the carpet, about four feet in front of her, when someone walked into her field of vision. The black shoes had been polished to within an inch of their life…the creases in the jet-black trousers were sharper than a Katana blade…she didn’t need to hear the voice to know to whom the shoes and creases belonged.
“Dance with me.”
She looked at the hand that appeared in front of her, refusing point blank to raise her line of sight to look at its owner. “Is that an invitation or an order, Commander Quinn?”
“An invitation – but I’m prepared to make it an order if I have to.”
The hand wasn’t going to go away. Knowing exactly how stubborn its owner could be, and with no desire to make a scene, Fiona accepted the offer and allowed herself to be led onto the dance floor.
They just had to be in time for something slow, didn’t they? He pulled her into his body, the heat of his palm at the small of her back far more intimate than if he’d blatantly aimed lower. His other hand curled around hers and pinned it against the hard wall of his chest. Held so close, she had no choice but to curve her left hand around the back of his neck, the cool silk of black hair teasing her fingers.
Thank God for the bodice of the bridesmaid’s dress – the rigid, corset-like structure would prevent Ryan from becoming acquainted with the fact that her nipples were already responding to his strong, muscular form. Her treacherous body shaped itself to his as if their years apart had never existed.
Up close, she could see the fine lines that hadn’t been on his face the last time they’d been so close, and the hint of silver that glistened in the raven’s-wing black. She found herself wondering if he was still a Commander, or if he’d achieved his goal of making Captain.
It was almost as if he’d read her mind.
“I resigned my commission two years ago, darlin’,” he murmured, his breath warm against her cheek. “It’s just Ryan now – or ‘selfish bastard’, if you prefer.”
He remembered. Fiona closed her eyes at the memory of calling him that in the arguments that had grown increasingly frequent and ever more vitriolic towards the end of their relationship. “If you’re no longer an officer, you can’t issue orders.”
“And around you, I was never a gentleman either.”
But he had been, she remembered. She’d been introduced to him not long after her little sister had first met Joel. Nat had dragged her to the pub on a rare joint night out, and there he was, one of the Special Boat Service team. Except he wasn’t actually one of the team – he was its leader. She could have been drawn to any of them, but no, it had to be Ryan Quinn…drop-dead gorgeous, a body to die for – the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. A few years older than her, born in Scotland to Irish parents, educated in England and an officer in the Royal Navy.
The instant attraction had been mutual – he’d manoeuvred her into sitting next to him, and for the rest of the evening, the only times he hadn’t held her hand had been when he went to the bar for drinks. At the end of the evening, he’d escorted her home, a perfect gentleman. The next day, he’d surprised her by appearing on her doorstep at eight a.m., flowers in hand, asking her to do him the honour of spending the day with him.
“Be careful, darlin’, or I’ll be thinkin’ that’s a smile that’s teasin’ your sweet lips.”
Fiona cringed at the exaggerated accent – he knew it set her teeth on edge, the bastard. “Drop the pound-store Paddy act, Ryan, it doesn’t suit you.”
More to the point, she’d only ever heard a trace of his Irish roots in the endearments he used when he was making love to her, and even then, it was a soft, lilting hint of a brogue that beguiled the senses.
Fiona breathed out hard. Encouraging memories like that, close to him as she was, wasn’t a good idea. Thank God he couldn’t see her face. She was sure he’d see evidence of her thoughts in her eyes: thoughts about his body, long-limbed, battle-scarred, covering hers, his hands and mouth working their incredible magic, teasing her with orgasm after orgasm before he took her, made her his with every deep, impassioned thrust of his cock.
The sex had always been mind-blowing. It was only after Ryan had declared his feelings, in the belief that she felt the same way, that she’d started to crumble.
Oh, he hadn’t been wrong about her – there were just too many complications for her to bare her soul to him like that. She’d once told another man she loved him, given him the power to hurt her, and he had – he’d just walked away, crushing pieces of her shattered heart under his feet as he went. She couldn’t risk opening herself up to that kind of pain again.
And as if that weren’t enough, she also managed to convince herself that Ryan couldn’t possibly love her, he just loved the person he thought she was. For years, Fiona had hidden her real self from everyone, pushed aside her own hopes and dreams, tried to be whatever other people – no, whatever her mother wanted her to be, to the point where she no longer even knew if the real Fiona Pearce still existed. And even if she did exist, Ryan probably wouldn’t even like her. The more Fiona had thought about it, the more convinced of it she’d become.
And finally, to top it all, there was the heart-breaking reality of her home life. She couldn’t drag Ryan into that, and reveal to him the reason why she could never spend the whole night with him, or do anything spontaneous.
As time went on, she became more defensive and the more defensive she became, the more determined Ryan had grown in his battle to get her to lower those defences – until she’d broken down in front of him and screamed at him to leave her alone.
And now, three years later, it was back to square one – she was in Ryan’s arms again, and her greedy, perfidious body wanted it never to end.
“When you’re ready to go, I’ll escort you up to your room.”
“What?” Absorbed in her thoughts and memories, Fiona wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.
“Unless you’ve changed dramatically in the last three years, you won’t last the night out. I remember we always ended up leaving the party before I got to slow-dance with you. When you’re ready to go back to your room, I’ll take you.”
“And then what?” Fiona tensed, waiting for the answer.
“I’ll kiss you goodnight, and if I have to wait another three years to see you again, I will. I wasn’t the one who ended things between us, Fiona – remember that.”
Ryan sipped what he swore was going to be his last whiskey of the evening – Irish, in deference to his heritage, rather than Scotch from the place of his birth. His body was still humming from the dance he’d shared with Fiona – his Fiona.
From his current vantage point, he could see the entire ballroom, his dark-brown eyes sweeping like radar over the guests. They were all still having a great time – and then his gaze returned to the only one who interested him.
Shit, but she’d felt good in his arms. The time they’d spent apart dissipated like mist after sunrise. He watched her go to her sister and new brother-in-law; there was something about her body language that communicated an intent to make her excuses and leave without telling him, much as he’d anticipated. He checked his trouser pocket for the scrap of paper, snatched up his suit jacket, and was just about shrugged into it when he caught up with her at the entrance to the ballroom, one arm automatically finding a home at her waist.
Fiona shot him a look. “What are you doing, Quinn?”
“I told you – I’m escorting you to your room. 358, right?”
The short, indignant sound was almost inaudible. “Even I can’t get lost in a hotel, Ryan. Lift up to the third floor, turn right, go to the end of the corridor, turn left and it’s the fifth door on the right. I don’t need a compass, and I don’t need an overgrown Boy Scout to show me the way. If all else fails, they have signs and I can read.”
Yeah, she could read all right. She’d read him like a book and ducked and dived for the whole of the twelve months they’d been together. She’d been so successful at keeping him at arm’s length that he’d never been able to get a handle on what made her tick, not even at the end, when she’d fallen apart in front of him and told him to get out of her life.
He’d gone, believing that she just needed a little time to catch her breath, that perhaps he was rushing her towards something serious a little too quickly. The days became weeks became months, and the phone call he was waiting for was never made. Eventually, he’d realised that she’d meant it, though he’d never come to accept it – and never would. He’d fallen for her on sight and knew, with an unshakeable certainty, that they were meant to be together.
That she hadn’t felt the same, or so she’d claimed, had left Ryan reeling – so much so that he’d buried himself in work, especially after resigning his commission to set up his own consultancy.
Work had flooded in, more than enough to keep himself and the former servicemen he employed busy. Joel had joined him first, followed by the rest of his old team from the SBS, as the time came for them to consider their futures. The Ministry of Defence brought them in as specialists in the field of maritime security, work that regularly sent them all around the world, to advise on the protection of British Government assets.
Although work had left him too exhausted to do anything but sleep when he wasn’t on the job, it hadn’t kept his thoughts away from Fiona or impeded his ability to recall, with brutal clarity, the last words she’d said to him.
And now, with her standing beside him in the lift, the pain of losing her had come roaring back to shred his heart all over again. At least she wasn’t wearing any rings, nor did she appear to have a partner for this shindig. Still, it didn’t do to assume.
“Where’s your boyfriend, Fiona? Couldn’t he make it?”
Even though he was expecting the sharp look, it still stung. “On a fishing trip, Ryan? What do you want me to say? That there hasn’t been anyone since you?”
The lift doors opened. Ryan followed his woman out into the corridor, falling into step beside her and putting a protective arm around her waist again. He didn’t want to hear the words, but he had to know. “Has there, Fiona?”
They reached her room. She fitted the key card into the slot and opened the door, turning to face him on the threshold, at the same time effectively barring the way into her room.
She looked him in the face, treating him to the full effect of those blue eyes he’d drowned in so many times before. Ryan held his breath, waiting for the final twist of the knife he’d already plunged into his own heart by following her out of the ballroom.
“No,” she said, her voice quiet but clear.
Ryan started to breathe again. “Why not?”
“None of your damn business, Quinn.”
He fished the note out of his pocket. Taking one of her hands in his, he pressed it into her palm and folded her fingers over it. “My mobile, Fiona. If you ever need me, any time of the day or night, call me.” He kissed the back of her fingers. “Sleep well, darlin’.”
Fiona watched the former Royal Navy officer head back towards the lift. The unmistakable pain in her chest was her heart breaking all over again. Why couldn’t he have left her alone? Why couldn’t he have hated her for kicking him out of her life the way she had?
I love you, Fiona. We belong together.
That was why – the last thing he’d ever said to her, until he’d approached her tonight. Fiona closed the door and leaned back against it, acutely aware of every breath and every beat of her heart. A wave of intense pain swept over her. If things had been different – if she’d been the kind of woman who deserved someone like Ryan – he’d have been there with her now, instead of heading back to the wedding reception or wherever it was he was going. And they wouldn’t have spent the last three years apart.
She crumpled the note he’d given her. His mobile phone number – why in the name of God had he given that to her? As if she didn’t remember it, even after all this time. Didn’t he realise that it was only going to open old wounds, whether she used it or not? Fiona tossed the piece of paper onto the dressing table; what she needed right now was a shower, a hot drink and some downtime in front of the TV. More than that, she needed to get out of the bridesmaid’s dress – navy blue with white-and-gold piping and buttons, the colours chosen as an acknowledgement to the groom’s former life in the Senior Service.
Twenty minutes later, she was lying on the huge, king-sized bed, watching a romantic comedy. A mug of insipid hot chocolate was going cold on the bedside table. Her eyes were on the TV, but her mind was on Ryan and that damn phone number. Common sense was telling her that she couldn’t go back; she couldn’t resurrect a relationship with him, not if she wanted to keep her hard-won peace and avoid hurting him again – a hurt for which she’d never apologised. She should flush the temptation of that note out of her life, even if she couldn’t purge the number from her memory. She could get a room-service breakfast at six in the morning, and be on her way before anyone else from the wedding saw daylight.
Fiona didn’t wait for the film to end before she switched off the TV. Having made her decision, she filled in the breakfast choices on the tag, looped it over the outside door handle, and then settled down to get some sleep.
Sleep, however, eluded her. That phone number had blazed into life once more, and the paper on which it was written was taunting her.
No, she couldn’t. It was the dumbest idea in creation.
Because sometimes, loose ends couldn’t always be tied up.
She wasn’t going to.
Because sometimes, looking for closure could open a whole new can of worms.
In a suite up on the fifth floor of the same hotel, Ryan was sorely regretting his decision to give up smoking five years earlier. It had taken every ounce of strength he possessed to leave Fiona at her door without begging her for another chance, or at least for an opportunity to talk about what had happened. He’d sauntered away, giving every impression that he hadn’t a care in the world, when the truth was he was dying inside from wanting her to call his name. Needing her to call his name.
Back in his own room, he’d stripped off the formal suit and sobered up under the shower – not that he was anywhere near drunk, unless it was drunk on being close to Fiona once again. Now wearing only a comfortable pair of jeans, he was lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling and hoping for divine inspiration to tell him how the hell he could gain control of his emotions once more.
He needed to focus on something else, to turn his thoughts away from that internal turmoil. As it had always been, that something else was work, and this time it was the series of phone conversations he’d had with Cam Fraser, a former SAS staff sergeant he’d first met while on active service in the Royal Navy.
They’d worked together on several joint ops over the years, along with Alex Lombard, an officer in the Regiment. Fraser and Lombard were good, dependable men who knew their shit inside out. As a result of those experiences, the three of them had come to share a solid if low-key friendship. And like Ryan, after leaving the military, they’d moved into the security business, mainly in the provision of close protection services to private individuals, and security at high-profile, land-based assets.
Lombard had long since moved on, but it seemed that Fraser was now being approached to provide maritime expertise as well, and had had no choice but to turn that work down through not having the necessary experience or manpower. The first call had been an initial approach to see if Ryan was interested in joining him as an equal partner, combining both businesses into a security consultancy that could offer a much greater range of services.
The possibility had intrigued Ryan – indeed, it held a certain appeal – but being far more cautious in business than he was where his heart was concerned, he’d asked for time to consider the idea before committing to any more detailed discussions at the time. What was also interesting was that Fraser had hinted that he was also trying to bring Lombard back into the business.
The persistent ring of his mobile phone brought him out of his introspection. The number, another mobile, wasn’t programmed into his phone, nor was it one he recognised. “Hello?”
The silence on the other end of the call lasted about three seconds.
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